Tag Archives: Bob Stinson

The Replacements – Tim – Classic Music Review

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Well, well, well . . .

I’d always felt there was something special about Tim, but I couldn’t quite put it into words until I read Bob Mehr’s biography, Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements. In the chapter that details the creation and production of Tim, I found my long-sought answer:

Westerberg wrote several of the songs “a week before the album was recorded,” giving it a loose improvisational quality, including the LP opener, “Hold My Life.” “Yeah, because that one doesn’t have any lyrics,” laughed Westerberg. “That’s the perfect example: there’s no damn words to it. We were going for a feeling, and the [hook] line ‘Hold my life, ’cause I just might lose it’ was all I needed to say.”

Mehr, Bob (2016-03-01). Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (p. 179). Da Capo Books. Kindle Edition.

As a lifelong aficionado, student and very occasional participant in the world of improv theatre, this explanation resonated with me on many levels. My curiosity about improv sprung from a pattern I had noticed: I laughed ten times harder when watching actors make shit up as they go than when I watched a scripted comedy sketch or a canned monologue. After undergoing some training in improv, I learned that the essential quality of improv is to quiet the censor in the mind—that stupid little angel on your shoulder that’s always warning you to NOT. The real insight you get from improv training is learning where that censor comes from: your desire to protect the image you want to present to the world. The censor is part inner snob and part your personal collection of social taboos inherited from parents and teachers. “I would never hang out in a biker bar because of my intellectual and aesthetic superiority,” or “I would never eat at McDonald’s because I only eat organic, unprocessed food” or “I would never fuck a member of the same sex” are examples of the NOTS that arise from the person we want everyone to believe us to be. Inside, we may have a serious leather or motorcycle fetish, would kill for a Big Mac and would love nothing more than to crawl all over the delectable body of a person of the same gender. But that’s not what we want the world to believe, and we refuse to believe the world could possibly accept the unrepressed version of ourselves. So we repress, reject and crawl back into our rather uncomfortable but protective shells.

This censor is absolute death to an improv scene. Imagine that you’re in the audience waiting for the improv troupe to start the next bit. One of the actors initiates an “offer” to another actor to kick things off. Watch what happens when Actor 2 responds from the desperate need to protect the projected image:

ACTOR 1: (offering) Hey! I don’t know how you feel about dating a woman, but I know this great biker bar just outside of town. We can have a few drinks and have a little dinner—there’s a McDonald’s right next door (laughs)!

ACTOR 2 (responding from ego): Are you nuts? A biker bar? McDonalds? I wouldn’t be caught dead in either place! No! No! A thousand times no!

Actor 2 has just killed the scene. There’s nowhere to go now. The energy in the theatre dissipates in the awkward, oppressive, judgmental silence. Actor 1 stutters and stammers in a vain attempt to rescue the situation.

Now imagine saying “Yes.”

ACTOR 1: (offering) Hey! I don’t know how you feel about dating a woman, but I know this great biker bar just outside of town. We can have a few drinks and have a little dinner—there’s a McDonald’s right next door (laughs).

ACTOR 2 (saying yes): Omigod! The smell of leather! The roar of a Harley! Testosterone vs. estrogen! Bikers, booze and Mickey D’s? It doesn’t get any better than that! Let’s go! (jumps on other actor, showers her with kisses and rubs her crotch over her partner’s leg).

Now we can get to the biker bar and all the comedic possibilities in that utterly charming milieu.

When you say “yes,” you open yourself up to possibilities. When you quiet the sensor, you can say what’s in your heart and dripping from your libido. While the intellect still has to be there when you do improv, its role is more facilitative, less restraining. With mind, heart and body in sync, you can create those all-too-rare and beautiful moments where you feel completely and utterly alive.

That’s what I hear on Tim.

That such a result was achieved by a bunch of high school dropouts with serious alcohol and substance abuse issues shouldn’t surprise you. The Replacements turned off many of the censors in their brains for various reasons, ranging from horrific abuse as children to the stultifying conformist norms of their culture of origin. Alcohol, drugs and music were part of the way they dealt with a society that rejected and traumatized them. They also had an extraordinarily gifted songwriter in Paul Westerberg who trusted his unfinished thoughts, repressed emotions and soul-level frustration with a life that seemed to offer nothing beyond getting yourself poured into a mold. Granted, Westerberg’s approach was a long way from pure improv, but the tight time frame between creation and recording on Tim meant that he had very little time and opportunity to edit his work, essentially disabling the critic in his brain that might have told him, “You can’t say this” or “This is really silly” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” That’s why many of the songs on Tim have such immediacy and impact: most reflect the uncensored thoughts and feelings of a man with exceptional intuition and insight into the nature of social and interpersonal dynamics. His songwriting approach produced a profound connection to many in the listening audience who, like him, felt lost and alienated in a society filled with apparently helpless automatons feeding on materialism and lulled to sleep by television and booze:

With Let It Be, people were paying ever closer attention to Paul Westerberg’s words. “It was a mixed blessing when I started to attract fanatics who would read something into a song that maybe wasn’t there, or maybe someone who would read exactly what’s there,” he admitted. Still, Westerberg never took the power of his songs, his ability to connect with listeners, for granted. “People always come up and say, ‘You wrote this just for me,’” he noted. “And I say, ‘Yeah, I did. I don’t know you, but I knew you were out there.’”

Mehr, Bob (2016-03-01). Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (p. 155). Da Capo Books. Kindle Edition.

I think the tight time frame also energized the band’s performance. Songs have a definite trajectory over time, from curiosity to peak interest to familiarity to oh-my fucking-god-if-I-hear-that-song-again-I’m-going-to-strangle-myself. On Tim, we hear The Replacements at the peak of the trajectory, excited about all this great new material.

The peak is on full display in “Hold My Life,” where the band starts off in high gear, energetic but tight, pounding out those sustained power chords and letting Chris Mars and Tommy Stimson drive this sucker like there’s no tomorrow. “Hold My Life” is one of the great anthems of youthful alienation, featuring stumbling, fragmented lyrics that foreshadowed the nonsense lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The combination of fragmented phrases and the tight, forceful backing from the band creates an exceptional urgency, much like you would feel in response to a cry for help:

Well, well, well I, found it’s [my life]
Down on all fives
Let me crawl
If I want, I could dye (die) . . . oh . . . my hair
Time for decisions to be made
Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
And hold my life until I’m ready to use it
Hold my life because I just might lose it
Because I just might lose it

The vocal hesitation on “dye (die)” was a brilliant bit of phrasing: by pausing after the word, Westerberg allows the listener to assume he’s expressing suicidal thoughts, then pulls back from the precipice with an elongated “oh . . . my hair,” making a powerful comment on the instinctual tendency to repress socially unacceptable feelings. Even more fascinating is the use of the phrase, “Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home,” a reference to the Tooter Turtle cartoon of the early 1960’s. Many kids in the television era absorbed life lessons from after-school and early Saturday morning cartoons, and depending on the quality of parenting, those life lessons may have been all the guidance they ever received. Tooter Turtle was semi-educational: essentially a kid (Tooter) does dumb things and learns a lesson. Here’s the basic plot structure of a Tooter Turtle episode:

Tooter . . . calls on his friend Mr. Wizard the Lizard . . . Mr. Wizard has the magic to change Tooter’s life to some other destiny, usually sending him back in time and to various locales. As Tooter is doing his destiny, Mr. Wizard narrates about it. When Tooter’s trip finally became a catastrophe, Tooter would request help with a cry of “Help me Mr. Wizard, I don’t want to be X any more!” where X was whatever destiny Tooter had entered. Mr. Wizard would then rescue Tooter with the incantation, “Twizzle, Twazzle, Twozzle, Twome; time for this one to come home.” Then, Mr. Wizard would always give Tooter the same advice: “Be just what you is, not what you is not. Folks what do this has the happiest lot.” (Wikipedia).

Paul Westerberg might have seen Tooter in reruns; it’s more likely he heard about it on the MST3K episode The Cave Dwellers, given the Minneapolis connection. Whatever the source, inserting this incantation underscores the classic young adult realization that there is no magic solution to alienation, no Mr. Wizard to pull your ass out of the fire, and no tried-and-true homilies that can help you make sense of a crazy world that seems to have no place for you.

“Hold My Life” also sets the musical tone for the album. Produced by Tommy Ramone (Erdelyi), the sonic quality of Tim is Ramones-ish and decidedly low-fi. Some band members were unhappy with the mix, a debate covered comprehensively in Trouble Boys. In general, I rather like the roughness of the mix, as its simplicity and directness draw more attention to the songs themselves. I do wish the bass had been turned up a couple of notches louder, for I love strong bass (and Tommy Stimson’s work throughout the album clearly deserved more volume). Even so, the energy of the band and the sheer quality of the songs combine to overcome any deficiencies.

We keep on rocking with “I’ll Buy,” a dramatic monologue of the debt-ridden American male finally waking up to the insanity of obsessive consumerism due to the relentless pressure of his constantly growing pile of unpaid bills. I love Paul Westerberg’s vocal on this piece, especially when he jacks it up to almost manic passive aggression in the chorus:

Anything you want, dear, is FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE!
Everything you say, dear, I’ll BUY, BUY, BUY, BUY, BUY!

He also nails it on the third verse, energized by both the laughable absurdity of materialism and the blistering guitar solo preceding it:

We never get passed the dice dear, goddammit, I’m gonna roll!
People that pick your nose clean, so what we owe, owe, owe
Give my regards to Broadway, tell ’em I don’t really care
If you want a good joke, why split? You’ll go broke right here.

The Replacements dial it down at tad with “Kiss Me on the Bus,” a lower-key rocker about the strange chill that overcomes human beings when riding on public transportation. As a lifelong rider of buses and trains, I’ve always wondered why people get so cold, protective and flat-out fucking rude when riding public transit. You see, I have the horrible habit of entering places (rooms, buildings, buses, trains) and smiling at the people I meet. I can’t help it! I like being with people! I’m happy to see them! This presents a serious problem for me in France, where people frown upon smiling in the context of transactional interactions, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop smiling out of respect for an obsolete cultural norm.

My toothy protests against human incivility are generally ignored, and I have silently repeated the “ok, don’t say hi, then” from “Kiss Me on the Bus” a million times over the course of my life. My response is usually to get grumpy and say “Fuck these assholes” and open a book. Paul Westerberg’s response is a bit more imaginative: he fantasizes about making out with the hot chick who just climbed onboard. What I love about his burst of imagination is how he makes the whole thing seem a perfectly normal, human activity while labeling the tendency to avoid contact as “adult” (i. e., programmed anal behavior):

If you knew how I felt now
You wouldn’t act so adult now
Hurry, hurry, here comes my stop
On the bus, watch our reflection
On the bus, I can’t stand no rejection
C’mon, let’s make a scene
Oh, baby, don’t be so mean
They’re all watchin’ us
Kiss me on the bus
Kiss me on the bus

Now, I wouldn’t say that erotic fantasies have never crossed my mind on buses and trains, but mine go a step further and involve getting off the bus because I don’t want creepy crawly germs making contact with my clitoris and sliding into my precious vagina. Hey! I use my vagina a lot and it has to be in tip-top shape 24-7!

Lead guitarist Bob Stinson was going through a rough patch during the recording of Tim, showing up haphazardly and not contributing all that much when he made it to the studio. The Replacements came up with a couple of hard rockers to help facilitate his participation; the first is “Dose of Thunder,” a 70’s style rocker that feels a bit too boilerplate. It’s followed by “Waitress in the Sky,” with its Johnny Rivers melody (“Mountain of Love”). Designed to be an expression of empathetic support for the assholes his flight attendant sister had to deal with in flight, Paul Westerberg plays his role with suitable mean-spiritedness, capturing the casual dehumanization when undeserving and self-entitled losers imbue themselves with the power of that lame phrase, “the customer is always right.”

No, they’re not. Customers can be fucking assholes. Especially American customers, who transform the power of the customers into the god-given right to abuse people trying to serve them.

While the influence of Alex Chilton and Big Star is obvious throughout Tim, I doubt if any Mats fans expected that ‘Ol Blue Eyes would leave his mark on a Replacements’ album. The melody of “Swingin’ Party” is certainly reminiscent of mid-60’s Sinatra, particularly his duet with daughter Nancy, “Somethin’ Stupid.” As Westerberg said in Trouble Boys, “If you steal from everything . . . nobody can put a finger on you.” What raises the song above the level of amateur plagiarism are the lyrics, where Westerberg sings of the dynamic of experiencing fear and turning to alcohol for comfort—a problem that frequently plagued the stage-fright stricken band:

If bein’ wrong’s a crime, I’m serving forever
If bein’ strong’s your kind, then I need help here with this feather
If bein’ afraid is a crime, we hang side by side
At the swingin’ party down the line

The guitars here are sweeter, drenched in a combination of reverb and tremolo that creates a suitable, lounge-like background. Paul Westerberg’s vocal is one of his most beautiful, expressing the fragility that leads to drink and the guilt that accompanies the boozing.

Side Two reconnects us with seriously bad-ass rock with a message in “Bastards of Young.” Goddamn, this is one powerful piece of music! Memorable guitar riffs, punchy, sharp-cut power chords, one hell of a set of bass runs from Tommy Stinson and a commanding vocal from Paul Westerberg all come together in one of the strongest pieces in The Replacements’ catalog. The song captures the dynamic between parents and children in post-Vietnam America, a relationship distorted by a combination of a collapsing American dream and the ascendancy of economic needs over human needs:

God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin’ cotton and waitin’ to be forgotten
Wait on the sons of no one, bastards of young
Wait on the sons of no one, bastards of young
The daughters and the sons

The second verse describes a world where the value of children is reduced to the tax advantages (“Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function”). The incredibly powerful final verse expresses the tragic result of detached parenting—in a world where the notion of having a child based on unconditional parental love and commitment has become passé, the child cannot help but feel abandoned, unwanted, desperate for attention and thoroughly confused:

The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please
If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them

“Bastards of Young” is a brilliant piece of work, a song of dignified outrage expressed in the genre best equipped to deal with outrage: kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.

“Lay It Down Clown” is a relative comedown. The second “Let’s Help Bob” number refers to R.E.M.’s lead guitarist Peter Buck, an inside joke if there ever was one. Fortunately, it’s only a barely-over-two-minute distraction leading to the far superior “Left of the Dial,” a track recorded months before in a demo session guided by Alex Chilton. Bob Mehr called this song “Westerberg’s finest and most heartfelt anthem,” and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s a gorgeous piece with more than a little kick to it due to strong syncopation and semi-stop time passages followed by all-out bash. “Left of the Dial” is a somewhat oblique love song for singer-guitarist Lynn Blakey, whom Paul met at a shared gig in San Francisco’s I-Beam (a place in the Haight that closed only a couple of years before I got my fake I. D. and could crash the clubs). What makes the song more than another insiders-only story is its depiction of the long-distance, never-quite consummated relationship, a relationship reduced to fleeting appearances of her band on the radio (left of the dial, where alternative and public radio tend to reside):

Pretty girl keep growin’ up, playin’ make-up, wearin’ guitar
Growin’ old in a bar, ya grow old in a bar
Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A.
Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name
And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial

Many of us have fond memories of “the one who got away” due to life circumstances, and Westerberg captures those sweet feelings while firmly placing the relationship in the out-of-the-mainstream culture.

Mehr is a bit off-base when he describes “Little Mascara” as “a new kind of Westerberg number: a fictionalized character study.” I think “I Will Dare” is a damned fine character study, strengthened by the first-person dramatic monologue format. What I like about “Little Mascara” is the empathetic but penetrating description of the single female parent, caught between the need to care for the kids, the need to earn money to feed them and the long shot dream of a better life:

For the moon you keep shootin’
Throw your rope up in the air
For the kids you stay together
You nap ’em and you slap ’em in a highchair
All you ever wanted was someone to take care of ya
All you’re ever losin’ is a little mascara

There’s an interesting contrast between the high intensity of the band and the comparative gentleness of Paul’s vocal that hits me differently depending on my mood. I’d love to hear an acoustic-only version.

“Here Comes a Regular” closes the album, largely because it’s impossible to follow a song like this one. The song is as simple as simple can get, dominated by a three-chord pattern that every wannabe guitarist stumbles on during the first year of play: just put your pinkie on the third fret of the E string and leave it there while you play C, G, and F. What gives the song incredible power is a combination of rich lyrics and Paul Westerberg’s forlorn vocal, recorded in relative isolation, surrounded by dividers, in “near-total darkness.”

The song can be best appreciated by comparing it to the theme songs of one of the most popular television programs of the era, “Cheers.”

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

Suitably superficial for the television audience, the song idealizes the neighborhood bar as a place where you can take a break from your troubles and connect with people who care about you and share a similar set of challenges. Not a hint about the potential downsides of alcohol as an escape hatch or the surface-gliding conversations that fill the evening.

Paul Westerberg, who lived in a Midwestern culture where the neighborhood bar is the default choice when you’re looking for something to do, presents a darker but more true-to-life picture where the drinking hole is a Sartrean trap—a place where “hell is other people” and the experience is one of existential nausea:

Well a person can work up a mean mean thirst
After a hard day of nothin’ much at all
Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass
There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall
And sometimes I just ain’t in the mood
To take my place in back with the loudmouths
You’re like a picture on the fridge that’s never stocked with food
I used to live at home, now I stay at the house
And everybody wants to be special here
They call your name out loud and clear
Here comes a regular
Call out your name
Here comes a regular
Am I the only one here today?

That first verse is only Westerberg’s voice and guitar; the second verse introduces a simple synth pattern that reinforces the overall sadness. This verse explores the desperate search for validation and its temporary fix in the comfort of a familiar face (“Everybody wants to be someone’s here/Someone’s gonna show up, never fear”). The verse ends with an uncomfortable piece of self-discovery (“Am I the only one who feels ashamed?”) and fades into a brief, restrained piano interlude that allows us to wipe our tears before the darker, chorus-free third verse:

Kneeling alongside old Sad Eyes
He says opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut
All I know is I’m sick of everything that my money can buy
The fool who wastes his life, God rest his guts
First the lights, then the collar goes up, and the wind begins to blow
Turn your back on a pay-you-back last call
First the glass, and the leaves that last, then comes the snow
Ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall

The return to the march of the seasons intensifies the picture of a man caught in a cycle from which there is no escape. His choices are limited to the bar and the fruitless action of raking the leaves, which he dismisses as another useless exercise devoid of meaning. Ironically, the choice not to tend to the leaves is an indication that he still possesses free will, but at this point the man is paralyzed by his failure to find meaning in anything. Having rejected materialism (“I’m sick of everything that my money can buy”), he now finds himself face-to-face with a society unable to offer him nothing more than material comfort. In this sense, his life is on hold due to the perceived lack of choice, bringing us full circle to the same predicament depicted in “Hold My Life.”

Well, well, well, anyone could tell, pass it off, a lucky shot
Ooh, they do hate ’em, someday soon, face ‘em
Time for decisions to be made
Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive

I mentioned that the last verse of “Here Come the Regulars” has no chorus. This was an inspired artistic decision in defiance of the dogma that says you need to reinforce “the hook.” Had Paul Westerberg ended the song with a chorus, he would have trivialized the experience to the nth degree, depersonalizing the regular into little more than a stereotype. The story fades exactly when it needs to fade—with the lights out, the collar up and the cold wind blowing.

The Replacements came up with the name Tim during a drunken and/or substance-inspired ad-lib session where conversations wind up following paths more like doodles than highways. “What do we call the new album?” “How about Fred? George? Ethelbert?” The result certainly resonated with their nihilistic sense of humor and refusal to take themselves seriously. The title is therefore curiously ironic, for by approaching Tim in semi-improvisational fashion and filling the album with some of the most insightful songs of the era, they made Tim a masterpiece that deserves to be taken seriously.

Well, well, well . . .

The Replacements – Let It Be – Classic Music Review

replacements-let-it-be

The year before I was born, the citizens of the United States of America, stricken by high inflation, gas shortages, massive unemployment and a long, drawn-out humiliation at the hands of the Iranians, elected a lousy B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan to lead them out of the wilderness. Reagan’s strategy was to cut the crap out of federal spending on social programs and pour billions of dollars into defense. When Reagan took office, the unemployment rate was 7.1%. Four years later, as he faced a re-election campaign, the unemployment rate was 7.6%, after peaking at 9.7% in the middle of his first term.

Not much of a record to run on, you might think.

But this was 1984, the Orwellian year. In Orwell’s world, the government defined what was true and what was not, and the same dynamic was in play during the 1984 presidential campaign. In a brazen use of selective statistics, the Reagan team exploited the gullibility of fearful Americans and capitalized on their desire to return to a mythic past where only straight, white people had any significance. They produced a perfectly-Orwellian campaign film with the theme, “Morning in America”:

Orwell, P. T. Barnum, whatever. It worked like a fucking charm. Reagan won in landslide, taking every state in the union except Minnesota.

That same year, an obscure hard punk band from the only state to vote for Mondale-Ferraro decided that they were sick and tired of the restrictive cultural and musical norms imposed on them by punk purists and instead chose make the music they wanted to make and say the things they wanted to say. They said things that all those people who voted for Reagan didn’t want to hear: that your family doctor is a greedy pig, that gender identity is flexible, and that it’s okay for old and young to get intimate with each other. Most shockingly, they had the gall to express deep dissatisfaction at a time when everyone else believed it was Morning in America.

America would be a much happier place today if people had listened to Paul Westerberg instead of Ronald Reagan.

Let It Be is one of those great liberation albums where a band finds its true voice and expresses it with the special exuberance of self-discovery. Somewhat mislabeled by the music press as a “coming-of-age” album, Let It Be is that and much, much more. It expresses truths about life and American culture that still have validity to this day—truths that most Americans would rather avoid. Thirty years after its release, it still sounds fresh, alive and full of creative bursts that delight and astound the listener. It’s passionate, playful and intensely honest. Let It Be and its follow-up, Tim, are among the few great albums to appear in the 1980’s, a decade dominated by overproduced crapola. If it weren’t for Joan Jett, The Replacements and Pixies, rock would have died a horrible death at the hands of U2 and Duran Duran.

Let It Be opens with exuberance, in the form of the endlessly delightful “I Will Dare,” a song that immediately gets your toes tapping and your ass shaking. There’s some debate over who’s playing the lead guitar and when, but that’s a topic for the musical archaeologists to figure out—all I know is that the dominant riff is fantastic and the instrumental passage containing the lead solo, with its rhythmic shifts and the unexpected but inspired insertion of a mandolin, raises this song to the level of greatness. Paul Westerberg’s lead vocal is a masterpiece of phrasing and dynamics; he doesn’t just reproduce the lyrics but intensifies their meaning. My take is that this is a first-person narrative by an older man trying to connect with a younger woman, and the mature gentleman in question is suffering from a combination of body shame and cultural taboos that frown on such relationships. Accordingly, the first verse is more restrained and reflective; in the second verse he appears to be gaining confidence with the chick until Paul inserts a split-second pause before the word “dumb” in the couplet “How smart are you? How . . . dumb am I?” That line and that delivery fucking floors me every time I hear it: it’s so unusually empathetic. The desirous gentleman oscillates between unease and confidence throughout the song, burdened by schedules and self-doubt but trying to convince both himself and the girl to take the leap:

Call me on Thursday, if you will
Or call me on Wednesday, better still
Ain’t lost yet, so I gotta be a winner
Fingernails and a cigarette’s a lousy dinner
Young are you? (old . . . )

Meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime
Now, I don’t care, meet me tonight
If you will dare, I will dare

The upbeat finish to the song implies that they both took the dare, but that may be wishful thinking on my part. Right now my male squeeze has twenty-or-so years on me, and I’m thankful every fucking day that we overcame one of the most resilient social taboos because our love is absolutely beautiful. I’m equally thankful that “I Will Dare” is underproduced: the rough edges sound like heaven in comparison to most 80’s records. The ‘Mats (as they are called fondly by their fans) knew that too much polish snuffs out the life in a rock song, and all of Let It Be captures the gloriously raw feel of great rock ‘n’ roll.

The ‘Mats began life in punk and they didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water when deciding to expand their musical reach. “Favorite Thing” contains many echoes of punk from the opening shout to the surf-punk feel of the riff to the sound of Chris Mars’ bashing drums. What’s unusual about the song is the delayed appearance of the chorus, which is itself played in a different rhythm than the verses. The contrast between the stuttering bash of the verses and the thumping, steady rhythm of the chorus is absolutely killer, the effect heightened in the first chorus by stripping the guitars from the arrangement and leaving only Tommy Stinson’s high-speed bass, drums and harmonized vocals. After a superb guitar solo from Bob Stinson, the second chorus amps up the excitement with pizzicato guitar and background power chords that put you right on the edge of orgasm. That’s a more-than-appropriate analogy for a song where the fragmented lyrics capture that moment of blessed departure from the behavioral restrictions of the routine, when you find yourself immersed in the wonderful evils of sex, alcohol, cigarettes and rock ‘n’ roll.

“We’re Comin’ Out” is more traditional punk, an energetic display of rough edges perfect for slamming your honey in the mosh pit . . . but even here The ‘Mats depart from tradition by downshifting and decelerating just after the midway point to create a relatively quiet space where Paul Westerberg’s vocal floats over finger snaps and piano. They restart the acceleration process almost immediately, ramping up noise and speed by degrees until returning to high-energy bash. It’s followed by the equally punk-friendly sounds of “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” a song that exposes the American medical system for what it is: a cash cow for physicians who have more important things to do than care about their patients:

Open wide, the doctor’s here
Everything is fine, got nothing to fear
Strap ’em down, we’re outta gas
Stop your bawling, you little brat

Get this over with, I tee off in an hour
Didn’t wash up, yesterday I took a shower
Get this over with, I’d be off in an hour
My Cadillac’s running, let’s

Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out now
Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out now
Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out now
Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out

The song is not only a hoot, but damn, the rhythm produced by Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson is a fabulous example of air-tight power.

Now we get up-close-and-personal with “Androgynous.” I’m not only a bisexual female with a dominant streak and a BDSM-orientation, but I’ve always wondered if I’m a semi-hermaphrodite. Both men and women who have gone down on me have commented that my clitoris gets so hard it feels like a penis (a rather meager penis, but still). I can maneuver a strap-on much better than most males equipped with the real thing, and my dominant tendencies are characterized by behavior that our society normally classifies as male, but I’ve never been what some tasteless individuals call a “butch dyke.” I’m intensely feminine and intensely assertive, which many people view as something of an oxymoron.

The point is that I’m different, and many of those who love differently or who choose to express their gender through the way they feel and think instead of through the cultural meaning attached to their plumbing are viewed with suspicion, disdain and even hatred by the majority of the human race. Right-wing Christians try to deprogram homosexuals; certain African nations would rather execute them instead. Bisexuals like me have very little legal standing anywhere in the world, and I’ve had a great deal of venom shot my way by straights, both male and female.

This is why “Androgynous” is one of the most beautiful and tender songs I’ve ever heard, and if Paul Westerberg had never written another song in his life, I would still rank him near the top of my favorite songwriters list for this one song. He gets it on so many levels. People who choose to love differently pose no threat to anyone. People who choose to explore life through the lens of the opposite gender should be celebrated for their courage and curiosity. And that what we should respect about those who love differently is that the bond created by two people who choose to love in defiance of social norms involves a level of trust that most people can hardly imagine:

Here comes Dick, he’s wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, y’know she’s sporting a chain
Same hair, revolution
Same build, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss

And they love each other so
Androgynous
Closer than you know, love each other so
Androgynous . . .

Mirror image, see no damage
See no evil at all
Kewpie dolls and urine stalls
Will be laughed at
The way you’re laughed at now

In addition to the words that make me tear up with a combination of bittersweet feelings and personal liberation, the arrangement is perfect: lots of hiss in the background with the right touch of reverb on the vocal and piano as if the scene is a late night club where gender benders congregate. Equally perfect is the tone of the song: this isn’t a sanctimonious rant about equal rights but a playful song that humanizes the characters and makes them accessible.

Whether it’s the position between two great Westerberg songs or the fact that it’s a cover of a Kiss song, I don’t think much of “Black Diamond.” It’s a competently-played rendition that demonstrates that The Replacements were more than capable of going heavy, but it lacks the verve of the other tracks, especially the following track, “Unsatisfied.” Though Westerberg thought it was a “throwaway” song that could have been better had they worked on it a bit more, I think “Unsatisfied” is a tremendous song and that adding additional lyrical exposition or a more complex production might have ruined it. As it is, “Unsatisfied” is the perfect expression of modern existential ennui, and if you need more technical information on that subject you can always read Sartre or Camus. But it’s the experience of ennui that matters, and Westerberg captured that experience more accurately than the two great existentialists. It is a dissatisfaction that has no specific object, no identifiable reason; it’s the moment you experience after doing the same-o, same-0 for years and one day you wake up and you know something is out of sync:

You look me in the eye
Then tell me, that I’m satisfied
Hey, are you satisfied?

And it goes so slowly on
Everything I’ve ever wanted
Tell me what’s wrong . . .

Look me in the eye
And tell me that I’m satisfied
Were you satisfied?

Look me in the eye
Then tell me, that I’m satisfied
Now are you satisfied?

Everything goes
Well, anything goes all of the time
Everything you dream of is right in front of you
And everything is a lie

“Unsatisfied” opens with arpeggiated acoustic guitar chords that resolve into a solid, unintrusive beat and a pattern marked by sustained chords that express intention through the continuity of the shared note. That continuity creates a solid platform for Paul Westerberg’s vocal, a compelling expression of deep-seeded disgust with life-as-is. Rather than coming across as a bitchy, poor-me rant, it sounds more like a wake-up call to self and other. Routine and tradition can numb a person’s senses to a slowly deteriorating reality, and the timing of the release of Let It Be couldn’t have been more appropriate. My read of history is that Reagan and his pals sold the American people a façade of mom and apple pie to direct their attention away from a crumbling society, and that the majority of Americans voluntarily entered a period of deep denial that still pervades the culture to this day. I’d love to become the Queen of America for a week, for what I’d do is blast out “Unsatisfied” from every available loudspeaker in the whole fucking country.

Let It Be came out about three years after MTV entered the scene and began to have an enormous influence on music and the music industry, all for the worse. Most videos served as nothing more than visual titillation, using the camera’s manipulative ability to imbue the artist and the music with a veneer of depth and sex appeal. From a marketing standpoint, it was a brilliant move, because the industry needed a gimmick to gussy up the really shitty products they were trying to peddle at the time. From an artistic standpoint, few artists took advantage of the medium to enhance the artistic message; most used it to raise their public profile and their own sense of self-importance. “Seen Your Video” exposed the bullshit in brilliant fashion with a demonstration of bass-heavy hot guitar rock in an extended instrumental passage featuring a stop-time segment of dissonant piano that ends with the severe poetic economy of eight direct lines:

Seen your video
The phony Rock ‘n’ Roll
We don’t want to know
Seen your video

Your phony Rock ‘n’ Roll
We don’t want to know
We don’t want to know
We don’t want to know

Amen, brother.

“Gary’s Got a Boner” is an all-out bash that always makes me laugh because it perfectly captures the male obsession with their members. I’m not one of those girls that go “ooh baby” when she sees a stiff prick, because frankly, I think the penis is the most ridiculous-looking human appendage of them all. They can be very useful, though, and I have no problem helping a male fulfill his destiny once I get over the giggles. Sexuality aside, I love the way the bass fills my headphones on this song, and the guitar work is rough and raw—just the way I like my men to behave. I can always correct them if they get too enthusiastic and try to take over. That’s why they invented riding crops!

One could easily put “Gary’s Got a Boner” in the category of coming-of-age songs if men ever grew up, but the better coming-of-age song on this album is “Sixteen Blue.” Bob Stinson’s varied counterpoint guitar fills and lead solo are simply fabulous, and Paul Westerberg’s empathetic vocal is one of his best. I read that this was written about the young Tommy Stinson, but the experience is shared by both genders. The lyrics describe a teen with a strong post-puberty sex drive trapped in a world where talking about sexuality is taboo: he or she fucks her way through life but doesn’t have anyone to talk to who can help her get his/her head around the experience. I don’t think most adults understand or accept their own sexual urges, which is why I think the identity crisis described here is universal and not simply limited to teenagers:

Brag about things you don’t understand
A girl and a woman, a boy and a man
Everything is sexually vague
Now you’re wondering to yourself if you might be gay

The sensitive, tender tone of the song is really what makes it so beautiful. Westerberg simply captures the experience without expressing judgment.

Let It Be closes with “Answering Machine,” and if you can get past the antiquated technology, you’ll find another well-written song about human disconnection, something we experience every day we go online and communicate without access to a person’s face, tone or body language. The angst experienced in having to talk to a machine instead of a human being is echoed in the tense arrangement, a duet of lead vocal and lead guitar. You keep waiting for the drums and bass to enter to relieve the tension but they never do; the song leaves you on hold, permanently. The couplet, “Try and free a slave of ignorance/Try and teach a whore about romance,” captures the image of a chasm so wide you could never hope to cross it, and when you’re lonely in a far away place, the chasm you experience when you hear that impersonal, invalidating voice mail message leaves you feeling utterly helpless. “Answering Machine” is a timeless song that poses a problem that will continue to worsen as long as we allow technology to substitute for human contact.

One of the other things I love about Let It Be is that the selection of the title was a statement in itself—one in which I find myself in complete sympathy. Paul Westerberg said it was “our way of saying that nothing is sacred, that the Beatles were just a fine rock & roll band.” After having slogged through the mountains of astonishingly trivial detail in what is only the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s three-volume Beatles bio, I find the ongoing adulation of The Beatles both puzzling and troubling, just as I find the continuing obsession with Marilyn Monroe totally weird. The groveling, masochistic tendency of human beings to elevate entertainers to godlike status is one of the worst features of today’s human race.

Look. The Beatles had about five years where they recorded some of the greatest music in rock ‘n’ roll history. Their last few years together were characterized by well-produced mediocrity and group dysfunction. They then went their separate ways and capitalized on their fame by making what was largely a pile of completely unforgettable crap, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt they were as human as you and me. When you figure in their solo careers, their collective bad years far exceed their collective good years, something that is true for most artists in any genre. They made a lot of money. McCartney achieved knighthood. Whoop-de-do. End of story.

And if you want to do a comparison between competing Let It Be albums, well, there is no comparison. The Beatles’ Let It Be is a piss-poor collection of weak music by a bickering bunch who were already past their prime. The Replacements’ Let It Be is a daring, powerful, sensitive and truthful work that is both endlessly entertaining and thought-provoking. Had that same music been packaged with the four mop tops on the cover, it would be universally celebrated as a masterpiece of the highest order.

I’m glad that didn’t happen. I like the thought of four regular guys winning in the end.

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